Corbett’s DRPA: Same Old Story?

The new governor has taken charge, but so far nothing much seems to have changed

A changing of the guard occurred this week at the scandal-plagued Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), as Governor Corbett appointed himself the new chairman, and replaced five board commissioners.

The law-and-order Corbett has pledged to clean up the authority through openness and transparency, vowing to oversee an entity free of the conflicts that plagued the prior board. But his appointments — all political insiders — have left many wondering if anything has really changed.

As chairman, the Governor sets the DRPA agenda, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he will live up to his promises. That said, a look at the new commissioners reveals that none are known as reformers or good-government advocates, and, in fact, raises new questions, such as whether the companies of board members will be eligible to receive DRPA contracts. [SIGNUP]

Cumulatively, the backgrounds of the six new board commissioners feature four lawyers (including one who works for the same firm as Montgomery County GOP Chairman Bob Kerns and State Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty), a real estate executive, a former union vice president, an official from the scandal-plagued Street Administration, large-dollar campaign donors to Corbett, a prominent GOP fundraiser, and former officials of a number of Philadelphia’s not-so-respected entities: the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Seaport Museum (which played a major role in the corruption trial of convicted ex-senator Vince Fumo). 
The new appointees to the board:

-William Sasso, board chairman at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young law firm in Philadelphia. Sasso is a prominent Republican fund-raiser and was a co-chair of Corbett’s transition team. The Stradley firm contributed $173,000 to Corbett. As an individual, Sasso donated $23,000 to Corbett’s attorney general and gubernatorial campaigns.

-Joanna Cruz, an attorney with Kerns, Pearlstine, Onorato & Hladik, the firm of Montgomery County GOP boss Bob Kerns and State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty. Kerns contributed $7,500 to Corbett.

-Joann Bell, an executive at Pugliese Associates, a lobbying and government relations firm. A former special-projects manager for the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and former vice president of AFSCME District Council No. 47, she was also an economic-development coordinator in former Mayor John F. Street’s administration. The Pugliese political action committee contributed $1,500 to Corbett.

-Walter D’Alessio, vice chairman of a real estate investment banking firm, and senior managing director of a real estate consulting group. A former chairman of the board of the Independence Seaport Museum and former executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, he also served on Corbett’s transition team and donated $2,500 to the Governor.

-David Simon, senior vice president and general counsel for Jefferson Health System in Philadelphia. Former general counsel to the Pennsylvania Insurance Department, he contributed $29,500 to Corbett’s campaigns and served on the Governor’s transition team.

On a similar note, Corbett appointed attorney Charles Kopp to serve as Chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. Lawyers at Kopp’s firm, Cozen O’Connor, donated nearly $150,000 to the Governor’s campaigns.

Corbett’s consistency is being called into question. Despite advocating fiscal discipline and adhering to the free market system, he supports the subsidized Philadelphia shipyard bailout. Similarly, criticizing Rendell for his DRPA conflicts seems a bit hollow when the new Corbett board has more than its share of cozy relationships with the political powerbrokers.

This is not to call into question the integrity of any new board member, nor the Governor himself. All may turn out to be true reformers, smashing the DRPA’s business-as-usual reputation as a haven of political patronage and a piggy bank for the insiders.

But until bold action and aggressive leadership takes place, that’s an impossible sell to an extremely cynical public. Based on Corbett’s promises to right the ship, there was not just the hope but the expectation that he would appoint good-government reformers to the Port Authority.

That didn’t happen. At all.

So what needs to be done to earn back the public’s trust? Here are four quick ways:

1) Stop the 25 percent toll increase slated for July, and put commuters ahead of Wall Street bondholders and the DRPA itself. At Corbett’s first Board meeting this week, he said commuters should be able to use the bridges as “cheaply” as possible. Well, stopping the back-breaking toll hike is the only way to accomplish that. But if he waits any longer, that goal becomes almost unattainable, as there simply won’t be enough time to realize cost-savings which would offset the revenue generated by the toll increase. The clock is ticking.

2) Fire CEO John Matheussen as well as most top executives. It’s bad enough Matheussen makes $50,000 more than either governor (and, up until investigative media reports aired, was enjoying a $17,000/year car allowance), but his reign has been one of catastrophic failure. The DRPA debt substantially increased, economic development projects having nothing to do with the bridges continued unabated, conflicts ran rampant, and he kept the board itself in the dark on numerous issues. He would have been fired years ago had he been in the private sector.

And while it’s technically true that he can’t be “fired” by either Corbett or Gov. Christie (a majority of board members is necessary to do that, and the Jersey Boys have been reluctant to can their patronage king), there is no way on God’s green earth that Matheussen or the Jersey board can withstand the pressure of two powerful governors, who each have an ace-in-the-hole. It’s called the Bully Pulpit. Time to use it.

3) Slash costs across the board. It is simply not necessary to have 900 employees with lavish salaries and benefits operating four bridges and a short rail line.

4) Authorize a top to bottom forensic audit from a non-political firm. If no stone is left unturned, millions upon millions in savings will be realized.

Despite the board meeting being a prime occasion to initiate such ideas, something else happened: absolutely nothing.

Corbett promised “a deep review before making any major changes” and stated his intention to get out of the economic development business.

That’s not exactly going out on a limb, since economic development had already been stopped. And there’s no economic development money left anyway!

For Corbett to say it was too early to replace Matheussen or to make any other big changes because he needed more time to figure things out boggles the mind. The Governor should have been up to speed already since he was Attorney General when criminal misconduct was being reported (which is why the New Jersey AG is conducting a criminal investigation). As a gubernatorial candidate for over two years, he was well aware that the Pennsylvania governor picks the DRPA Chairman, and could not possibly have overlooked the comprehensive media coverage of the DRPA debacles.

Oh, wait. The Governor doesn’t acknowledge the validity of those reports. “I don’t judge anything, no offense, by what you people put in newspapers and on TV,” he said after the meeting.

Does that mean Mike Joyce of the EZ Pass scandal was framed? Were all the investigative reports devoid of documented facts? Did the DRPA agree to reforms for any other reason than the hard-hitting media coverage?
All of which gets back to the fact that the toll-paying public will have to wait at least another month to see action. And their patience is growing thin.

A golden opportunity to win political capital is in danger of being lost by Corbett— mandatory if he is to successfully tackle the tough issues ahead (budget, pension reform, school choice, privatization of liquor). The Governor doesn’t seem to understand how important reforming the DRPA has become to the Southeast, home to half the state’s population. His board appointees and the lack of bold leadership have sent the message that, as of now, nothing has changed.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including
The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.” Freind, whose column appears regularly at and nationally in
Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national
television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia. He can be reached at